LET THE VINEYARDS BE FRUITFUL

We give thanks for the cup of blessing, which is a sharing in the blood of Christ. And the bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. Because there is one loaf of bread, we who are many are one body, because we all share that one loaf. [1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NCV)]

Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord,
And fill to the brim our cup of blessing.
Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown,
That we may be fed with the bread of life.
Gather the hopes and dreams of all;
Unite them with the prayers we offer now.
Grace our table with Your presence, and give us
A foretaste of the feast to come. [John W Arthur]

monarch butterfly - common milkweedWhen the ushers brought the offering plates forward, the congregation rose and sang “Let the Vineyards be Fruitful.” Often used in Lutheran churches as an offertory hymn when the gifts are presented at the altar, its references to vine, bread, and table make it especially appropriate on Communion Sundays.

As I sung those familiar words about fruitful vineyards, seeds and harvest, I was struck by the somewhat incongruous words in the middle of the song: “Gather the hopes and dreams of all; Unite them with the prayers we offer now.” I envisioned the congregation’s hopes, dreams, needs, and concerns piled high on top of the offering envelopes in those plates and realized we were presenting more than our checks and cash; we were offering our petitions for things like healing, reconciliation, peace, guidance, recovery, relief, purpose, increase, wisdom, strength, and restoration. While the particulars differed from person to person, our various hopes and dreams were being gathered, united into one prayer, and given to God. It wasn’t until I re-read the hymn’s words after church that I understood what that prayer asked or that our words referred both to the day’s simple meal of wafer and wine as well as to the eternal feast at Christ’s return. In our unified prayer, we were asking that Jesus grace us with His presence and give us a preview of the magnificent banquet that is yet to come in the Kingdom of God.

I’ve probably sung the words to this simple hymn hundreds (if not thousands) of times but last Sunday, as those words exited my mouth, they also settled into my heart and mind in a new way. I doubt that I will sing it again without picturing the congregation’s assorted prayers spilling over the sides of the collection plates and then melding into one unified prayer for both His presence and the coming of His Kingdom. Just as reading a book of the Bible once (or even several times) doesn’t mean we’ve fully grasped the meaning of the passages, the same goes for the hymns we sing or the liturgy we recite during worship. When Jesus warned us about meaningless repetition or babbling on in our prayers, repetition wasn’t necessarily the problem. After all, both the persistent neighbor and widow in His parables repeated their pleas and He repeated the same prayer three times in Gethsemane. The problem occurs when we repeat our words mindlessly or automatically. Let us always remember that knowing the words by heart doesn’t necessarily mean our hearts know the depth of their meaning.

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

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HEARING THE SHEPHERD

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. [Ezekiel 34:15-16 (RSV)]

lambThroughout the Bible, there are many references to the Lord as our shepherd and mankind as His sheep. Sheep are not the brightest bulbs in the pasture and, considering the state of the world, it seems a fitting comparison! I came upon a true story that illustrates the need sheep have for a shepherd. In 2005, more than 400 sheep in Turkey died when they followed the lead sheep off a cliff and fell 15 meters. The death toll would have been greater except those first 400 cushioned the fall of the next 1,100 sheep that were stupid enough to follow them! Clearly, that herd of sheep needed someone to tell them when to stop. Unfortunately, mankind seems as willing to blindly follow the lead sheep wherever he leads us, only we call it belonging, accepting, keeping up, staying current, maintaining the status quo, or not rocking the boat, making waves or causing trouble.

I happened upon a cartoon by Mike Waters in which a sun-glassed sheep is relaxing in a lounge chair and wearing ear phones connected to the iPod at his side. The TV is on, a computer rests on his lap, the radio is blaring, and he’s got a copy of Sheep Digest in his hands. Hidden under the stack of magazines at his side is a Bible. In the background, a shepherd is calling. The sheep says, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore!” The words in the caption beneath the comic are from John 10:27: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Of course, the sheep need to hear the shepherd to know his voice and nowadays we seem to be listening to everything but our shepherd’s voice (and reading everything but His word)! Worldly distractions, concerns, desires and possessions have drowned out His voice.

In the case of the unfortunate demise of the Turkish sheep, the problem wasn’t that they weren’t listening to the shepherd. The village’s shepherds had briefly abandoned the flock while they enjoyed breakfast. Unlike the Turkish shepherds, our Shepherd never takes a coffee break or goes off duty! He’s more like the shepherd in the cartoon—on the job and calling his flock. Like those suicidal sheep in Turkey, however, we rarely know enough to stop on our own. Fortunately, our Shepherd will step in and lead us. Of course, for that to happen, we have to be listening for His voice.

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. … My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. [John 10:14-15,27-28 (RSV)]

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UNCHANGING

Look up at the skies, ponder the earth under your feet. The skies will fade out like smoke, the earth will wear out like work pants, and the people will die off like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my setting-things-right will never be obsolete. [Isaiah 51:6 (MSG)]

Dragon's mouth springs - Mammoth Hot springs - yellowstone

The unstable, ever-changing, and even violent nature of this world in which we live is evident throughout Yellowstone Park. It’s disconcerting to see hot mud shoot out of a cavern, to smell sulphur and feel the hot spray as a geyser erupts, and to stand in the steam and hear the booming belch as water surges out of a hot spring. Yellowstone is actually a super-volcano that last erupted some 640,000 years ago and smaller eruptions of lava have occurred as recently (geologically speaking) as 70,000 years ago. The park is what geologist Robert Smith calls “a living, breathing, shaking, baking, caldera,” and those geothermal wonders that attract visitors are fueled by magma as hot as 1,500 degrees that lies just a few miles beneath the earth’s surface.

The abundant geothermal activity and the 1,000 to 3,000 small earthquakes that occur there every year mean that the park is always changing. For example, when my husband visited the park as a boy, there was no Quake Lake west of Yellowstone and the Steamboat Geyser had been dormant for nearly fifty years. A massive earthquake in 1959 created the lake and the geyser awoke in 1961. Since then, it’s been erratic in its activity but, after four years of dormancy, it began erupting again in March of this year. Shooting nearly boiling water up 345 feet, it has erupted ten times since then. The travertine terraces of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs are like living sculptures and continually change shape as over 500 gallons of hot water are discharged every minute and two tons of calcium carbonate are deposited there every day. Even the beautiful Yellowstone canyon, the result of wind, water and earthquakes, speaks of change as the Yellowstone River continues to erode the bedrock. Fire also has changed the landscape; over 70,000 acres of lush forest that existed when we visited there a few years ago became nothing but charred remains in 2016.

In Yellowstone’s dynamic and unsettled landscape, even the ground around the thermal features is unstable and can collapse. Then again, you don’t need to be in Yellowstone to realize how nature is an unpredictable, ever-changing, and often dangerous force. That Thai soccer team discovered how quickly a dry cave can fill with water in a flash flood, residents on the island of Hawaii saw their lives change in May when Kilauea began erupting and sent lava over the streets and through their neighborhoods. Texans, Floridians, and Puerto Ricans certainly can attest to the power of last year’s hurricanes. Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, drought, earthquakes, hail, thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, blizzards, avalanches, sinkholes, lightning and fire: we all are vulnerable to disaster from the changing and volatile nature of this world in which we live.

Yellowstone is a vivid reminder of how the forces of nature can change the world as we know it: rock erodes, mountains crumble, geysers appear and disappear, volcanoes erupt, forests burn and ground can collapse. I take comfort in the knowledge that, while nothing in this world is constant and forever, God remains our everlasting and unchanging bedrock. The same yesterday, today, and forever, He is our firm foundation.

Consider what you owe to His immutability. Though you have changed a thousand times, He has not changed once. [Charles Spurgeon]

I love you, God—you make me strong. God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight. My God—the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout. I sing to God, the Praise-Lofty, and find myself safe and saved. [Psalm 18:1-3 (MSG)]

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TAKE NOTHING BUT YOUR FAITH

He sent the apostles out to tell about God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. He said to them, “Take nothing for your trip, neither a walking stick, bag, bread, money, or extra clothes. [Luke 9:2-3 (NCV)]

giant swallowtaiil butterflyTake only what I’ve got on my back and the one pair of sandals on my feet? You’ve got to be kidding! Obviously, Jesus hasn’t looked in my suitcase! We’re taking the grands through the Tetons and Yellowstone and I need hikers, sneakers, and Tevas along with my sandals! In addition, I need my backpack, water bottles, hiking poles, shorts, hiking pants, jeans, tops, swim suit, jacket, fleece, cap, undies, toiletries, and assorted other essentials (like phone and iPad). While attempting to cram everything I want into my bags, I pondered this verse: take nothing. At least we have hotel reservations for our entire journey; the disciples didn’t even have that. They were expected to depend on the good will and hospitality of the towns they visited.

Would I have taken nothing with me or would I have squirreled away a little money in my robe’s pocket “just in case”? Would I have had enough faith that God would provide everything I needed or would I have worried about my next meal or finding a place to rest my head at night? We know the end of the story: Jesus died and rose again. He truly was the son of God—the promised Messiah—God in flesh. The disciples, however, weren’t yet Easter people; they were followers of an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Nevertheless, they followed his command; their faith in Him was that strong!

Thank you, Jesus, for the faith of those who went before us. Forgive us, Lord, for our lack of faith and for our deep attachment to the things of this world. We know that if we truly rely on your power, you will, indeed, provide everything we need. Help us surrender our lives and future to you, confident in your provision and love.

Then Jesus said to the apostles, “When I sent you out without a purse, a bag, or sandals, did you need anything?” They said, “No.” [Luke 22:35 (NCV)]

Don’t worry and say, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well. [Matthew 6:31-33 (NCV)]

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IN THE DARK

And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. [John 3:19-20 (NLT)]

sunriseAlthough demons had no trouble recognizing Jesus, the people who were most knowledgeable about Scripture and best knew the Messianic prophecies often seemed blind to what was before them. In fact, even after hearing Jesus speak and watching Him heal, the Pharisees and scribes accused Him of being a demon. Why did they refuse to see what was right in front of them?

Of the people who recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, only a few were what would have been called religious. The devout Simeon and Anna knew the Messiah when Jesus came to the temple as a baby yet, twelve years later, no one in the temple recognized Him as anything more than a perceptive intelligent boy. Most of the others who recognized Jesus were secular people who knew they were flawed and in need of Him: the woman at the well, the Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter, the prostitute who washed His feet, the blind Bartimaeus, the corrupt publicans Zacchaeus and Matthew, Mary Magdalene, the lepers, the adulterous woman, and the paralyzed man and his friends. On that dark Friday, rather than a religious scholar, it was one of the Roman soldiers who’d nailed Jesus to the cross and a thief hanging beside Him who testified to His true identity.

Just as sunlight reveals fingerprints on the window and dust on the table, the Light of the World revealed the sins of the world. Without light, a zircon can pretend to be a diamond, stainless can pass for sterling, and a designer knock-off can be mistaken for the real thing. In the darkness, hypocrisy, deceit and legalism can pass for righteousness, morality and piety. Until it recognizes what it actually is, corruption can call itself integrity, wickedness can say it’s virtue, and arrogance can profess humility. Those unwilling to see their own sinfulness and need for salvation rejected Jesus—the one without sin. Not wanting to see what the Light revealed, they chose to remain in the dark. Those who admitted their sins knew they were in the dark and welcomed the Light. Recognizing their need for Jesus, they accepted Him and received healing, mercy, forgiveness, and everlasting life.

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. [John 1:10-12 (NLT)]

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HE NEVER CHANGES

The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever. [Isaiah 40:8 (NLT)]

Lake Louise, - CanadaOur fast-paced world is ever changing. Reel to reel tape players, slide rules, cassette tapes, boom boxes, floppy discs, dial phones, land lines, film, and slide projectors are all things of the past. We traded in our VCRs for a DVD and then Netflix, the Atari for an Xbox, the family station wagon for a mini-van then an SUV, and the bank teller for an ATM. My kids don’t use maps or have record players and my grands have never used a library card catalog, encyclopedia, typewriter, or pay phone. My camera, maps, calculator, compass, checkbook, note pad, address book and Walkman all fit into my cell phone and my phone, fitness tracker, and heart monitor all fit into my watch! It’s not just technology; hemlines go up and down, lapels and ties get wider and narrower, and shoulder pads come and go. Since I can’t figure out if the latest style is flare, skinny, boot cut, or boyfriend, I just go with mom jeans!

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing constant is change,” and, in spite of my previous rant, I’d have to disagree. We change and the world around us changes but there is one thing in our lives that will never change: God. His truth, purpose and character remain the same in spite of technology, innovative trends, or style. The fancy word for that unchangeability is immutability.  Because God is the essence of perfection, no change could make Him any better and, being God, He will never become less than what He already is!

Since its introduction in 1985, there have been at least 14 versions of Windows, with each version supposedly an improvement on the previous one; my Windows 10 has been up-dated 28 times since its introduction in 2015. Fortunately, the original 1.0 version of God (introduced at the beginning of time) is all we need or want! Thank you, O Lord, for being the one constant in our lives.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. [Hebrews 13:8 (NLT)]

I am the Lord, and I do not change.  [Malachi 3:6a (NLT)]

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